By Zoé Edgecomb
Between now and May 7, Virginians have a rare opportunity to facilitate a moment of justice for the Monacan people whose land we live on.
Zion Crossroads, at the intersection of I-64 and Route 15, is developing rapidly, and local politicians have known for years that the groundwater is insufficient. Their solution is to pump water from the James River, and Louisa and Fluvanna counties created the James River Water Authority to make this happen.
The men on this board have determined that the cheapest, and therefore best, place for the water intake and pumping station is where the Rivanna River flows into the James —you may know it as Point of Fork or Columbia. The earliest maps of Virginia called it Rassawek, and European explorers noted it as the principal town of the Monacan, who occupied a large area in central Virginia, from the Fall Line (Richmond, Fredericksburg) into the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Several alternative locations for the project were studied, but after a well-attended meeting where over 100 people traveled to a gated community golf clubhouse to speak against it, the JRWA chose to continue the colonialist tradition of prioritizing profit over justice, and voted to submit an application for the third of four required permits to the Army Corps of Engineers.
The mindset that has allowed the project to get even this far is a product of centuries of myth-building: European colonists came to an empty, untamed land in which the Indians had already died off, and made the land fruitful for the first time. But the Monacan people have always been here, even if some of their number chose to incorporate into other tribes. The heart of the current community, a federally recognized tribe since 2018, beats just an hour south of Charlottesville, around Bear Mountain in Amherst County.
Few of us growing up around here learned much about the Monacans, and even today, few know about the doctrine of discovery that helped justify colonization. Accounts vary as to the exact beginning, but a few papal bulls (essentially letters from the Pope) played a critical role: In 1455, Pope Nicholas V gave Portugal the right to colonize the African coast. Portugal was encouraged to “invade, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens, pagans, and other enemies of Christ, to put them into perpetual slavery, and to take away all their possessions and property.”
Later, Protestant colonizers found their own mandate for colonization in the Bible. The kings and queens of England borrowed the Pope’s religious language to grant tracts of land they had never visited.
After they shrugged off their own status as colonial subjects, U.S. settlers relied on a distinction between “Christians” and “heathens” to justify further expansion into Indian territory. In 1823, Justice John Marshall’s ruling in Johnson v. M’Intosh put it this way: “…discovery gave title to the government by whose subjects, or by whose authority, it was made…which title might be consummated by possession…the character and religion of [the original] inhabitants afforded an apology for considering them as a people over whom the superior genius of Europe might claim an ascendancy.” In other words, finders keepers, as long as the original caretakers of the land could be perceived as pagans.
The legacy of the discovery precedent continues today, as corporations, government entities, and private citizens insist that Native Americans’ rights must give way to the “greater good” of pipelines, mining, and ranching.
Federal recognition means tribes must be consulted when federal projects will directly impact the tribe. This is one such project. Monacan people historically buried the dead in mounds near principal towns, so there is almost 100 percent certainty that human remains of Monacan ancestors will be unearthed if construction goes forward at Rassawek. Chief Kenneth Branham has stated that he and the Monacan community have participated in the process of reburial in the past. It is a deeply painful experience that no one wants to repeat.
To issue this permit, the Army Corps of Engineers is required to consider comments from the public. They need to consider all impacts, including on historic and cultural resources. Already, the site has allegedly been impacted by inept investigations: The archaeological firm hired by JRWA is accused of inflating its qualifications to do archaeological work of this nature, and of performing excavations at the site in a manner that may have permanently destroyed historic resources.
For more information, visit the website of the attorneys representing the Monacan Nation in this important struggle. Write to the Army Corps of Engineers and sign the letter to Governor Ralph Northam before the May 7 deadline. Tell them you oppose JRWA’s permit application; it is not in the public interest; and that Rassawek should be preserved as an important part of national, Virginia, and tribal history. Request a public hearing on the permit application and an environmental impact statement.
Louisa and Fluvanna counties must implement sensible water use guidelines, such as disallowing high-impact uses like golf courses. Ask developers to pay their fair share. By now, we should be able to recognize that the Monacan people have given up enough.
Zoé Edgecomb is a landscape architect and visual artist based in Charlottesville, located on Monacan lands.